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Safety liaison: RISD schools need security improvement

L.J. Harrell, school safety liaison, presents the results on the local public schools’ performance of emergency drills to the Roswell Independent School District’s school board on Sept. 10. (Alison Penn Photo)

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Though Roswell Independent School Districts have their fire drills down, there may be needed improvements for security measures.

L.J. Harrell, RISD school safety liaison, spent 20 days in total at each RISD school for required emergency drills, which concluded on Sept. 6. and “impacted about 12,000 people.”

From assessing the drills, Harrell said RISD needs to have “equal emphasis on safety and security” at the RISD school board meeting on Sept. 10. He said school security is “one of the biggest threats” and security drills are lacking nationwide.

“In the last 80 years, no kids have been killed in a school fire, but in the last 20, we’ve had hundreds in school violence,” Harrell said. “So that is our biggest threat that we’re facing. …”

New tactics will have to be learned for security purposes, Harrell said, adding it is “difficult” to “un-train” and “retrain” the students and staff.

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He used the El Paso Walmart shooting on Aug. 3, which left 24 injured and 22 killed, as an example of how security is now being addressed.

“Walmart was all about safety prior to that day, and now when you walk into Walmart, you see a security guard,” Harrell said. “We’re starting to see that shift that it’s OK to start putting effort into security ‘cause we sure don’t want to pay the price if we don’t.”

As required by Senate Bill 147, Harrell said this “big task” requires two fire drills along with one active shooter and one evacuation drill. He explained there are two types of drills: safety involving “nonliving threat” such as a fire, and security, where a “living threat” like an active shooter would be present.

“Again, we don’t have the security effort just yet,” Harrell said. “The push is starting to come. We’re trying to explain to people that yes, safety is important, but security’s just as important and we have to put forth that effort. …”

Roswell Police Department, Chaves County Sheriff’s Office, New Mexico Military Institute police, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the state police were some of the law enforcement involved with the school drills.

The results of RISD’s fire drills were completed in “record time” and are “spot-on,” Harrell said. However, Harrell said it is problematic to have students “so ingrained with safety and not security” that they will automatically “race out of the school” due to a fire alarm.

Secured vestibules have been installed in the schools but Harrell said one drawback is having an accessible fire pull in the vestibules. In a worst-case scenario, he said, those fire pulls could be set off by an active shooter and therefore exposing “hundreds” of students.

He said removing those fire pulls would be a “huge” effort toward safer schools.

Board president Alan Gedde questioned if fire pulls are “necessary anymore.” In response, Harrell brought up a discussion with Fire Marshal Matt Miller about not having fire pulls at the under-construction Del Norte Elementary School, since new fire suppression systems are so advanced and the pulls can “cause more harm than good.”

As for safety, Harrell and the Roswell Fire Department verified that “systems are good” with a few “minor things” to address.

While the schools do have adequate safety systems, Harrell said an alert system is needed to communicate with teachers, as opposed to using an intercom that could be jeopardized, and is something the district is exploring to increase security measures. He said radio communication between teachers and law enforcement officers was lacking and needed.

Board Member Mona Kirk challenged the board and district to look into a communication system called School Guard, which may have to go through a request for proposals process.

“… How can we put a dollar amount on our kids?” Kirk said. “Our kids are the most important. If we wanted to spend money, that’s where we need to spend it, is with our children.”

Special projects reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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